Structure vs Resolution

In my previous post I talked about nested loops giving structure to the game, creating a series of interrelated contexts within which the players' decisions have meaning and consequences.

We can contrast structural mechanics with resolution mechanics. With resolution mechanics you have a specific, immediate question raised by the story and actions of the PCs (“can I pick this lock?”, “can Superman arm-wrestle The Hulk?”, “should the story go the way Jack thinks it should go, or the way Jill wants to see it unfold?”) and you turn to dice and numbers and formal procedures to give you an answer.

Structural mechanics are more pro-active. They tell you what to do next. They establish certain facts about the world. Random encounter checks, downtimes, and reaction rolls are all structural. They raise questions, and mostly resolve only the questions they introduced.

Combat mechanics are structural. They tell you when it's your turn, enumerate certain standardized or special case options, and provide detailed outcomes.

During the 90s there arose an apparent aversion to structure. There's a section in the AD&D 2E DMG which weighs up the argument that having random encounters at all is “foolish” and the DM should be in direct control of every aspect of the game. While the section comes down in favour of the “judicious” use of random encounters, it does suggest a trend toward the DM simply unfolding the world before the players as they move through it, without much more than perhaps a map and some boxed text to fall back on.

The World of Darkness games are an instructive example. The only structure they have outside of combat is the division between Prelude, Scene, Chapter, Story and Chronicle -and these aren't really mechanical categories, just subheadings marking time in the story.

Even combat had an optional rule to reduce it to a skill challenge. Structure is a chore, why not just skip straight to resolution?

And yet, the WoD – a place where there's always a bigger fish, and there are grand objectives to work toward under the noses of powerful forces who rule the world from the shadows – cries out for structure. Take Mage: The Ascension. The Traditions are fighting for their vision(s) of how the cosmos should operate. They seem serious about this – it's described as a war. The Technocracy, which runs the world and imposes scientific laws on everyone, regards them as criminals and will kill them or worse if it can.

If you were designing this from scratch, would it not make sense to have an extensive domain game with mechanics for tracking how successful the PCs have been at pushing their view of reality to the masses? How much work does it take to give the city a neighbourhood of artists and dreamers where little bits of magic work? What does it take to force an invention into the public eye that doesn't fit with the Technocracy's timetable?

What resources does the local Technocracy branch have to bring to bear against you? How much damage do you have to do to render them ineffective? Conversely, how much heat do you have to draw to make the regional branch send in reinforcements? At what point do the really big guns get called in?

Interestingly the LARP version, the Mind's Eye Theatre books, did have much of this structure: The live action Vampire game has downtime rules allowing PCs to struggle for dominance over such institutions as the local press, government, and police force – because of course, they had to: Thirty people are going to show up to play vampires from a secret society who run the world from the shadows, and they're going to want to run the world from the shadows!

Nobody is going to tell them they can't take over the local paper, there's a good chance more than one of them is going to try it, so there has to be a consistent mechanic for it. But if you're a lone Storyteller trying to figure out the tabletop version of the game? Fuck you!

Like most games from the 90s onward, the WoD series also relied on a core resolution mechanic, consisting of rolling a skill plus an attribute against one (sometimes two) difficulty numbers, often described by vague unquantified adjectives like “routine” (what, like opening a door?) or “difficult” (yes but how difficult?)

A montage of photographs of RPG rules pages showing tables for task resolution, commonly with difficulties associated with target numbers such as 'routine' or 'challenging'.

You can probably tell I'm not a fan of this. It's not interesting – not in the way a puzzle or a combat or a conversation is interesting – and since the referee knows the player's stats, setting the difficulty is no different from setting a percentage chance of success – so why not just describe the character in general terms and let the GM base the odds on that? Why spend all that time on character creation, if the odds come down in the end to “pick a number”?

D&D has always had a core resolution mechanic, of course. Two, in fact: The x-in-six chance, and the ability check. Roll d20 under an ability with a modifier for very easy or difficult challenges. Both have advantages over the above, only requiring one die, one number, and being easy to eyeball percentages. (Average ability + no modifier = 50-55%)

But in D&D the ability check was there as something to fall back on when making rulings. It wasn't used for most common actions like picking locks, swinging swords, or casting spells. In D&D it was the cart; later games made it the horse.

While a core resolution mechanic is not interesting, as a safety net to catch things that aren't covered by other systems it doesn't need to be. Nested loops of different mechanics that operate in different ways for different reasons make for a fun game to engage with, you explore the mechanics just as you explore the imaginary space of the game world.

Here there's very little to explore. Which is also a problem if you want to sell a big thick glossy book: So having made these rather dull, streamlined, one-size-fits all mechanics, developers had to overcomplicate them or include long page-filling lists of abilities providing exceptions to them to make their page count – which might go some way toward explaining why character creation became more and more complicated.

(You could also put this down to a more mature, story-heavy style of play that demanding more character background, but we are precisely not talking about backgrounds here, but rather mechanics. I have beloved NPCs whose backstories are well-known but whose only stats are HD/AC/Dmg.)

Structure makes the game easier to run and more fun to play. It gives the players more understanding, and therefore more control over the world. It leaves room for storytelling and drama, but also the option to just do some dungeon crawling or island hopping this week, depending on mood and whether the DM has had any sleep. It can give the game world a solidity and a sense of progress (yes, the evil empire is more powerful than you, but how much more powerful than you? How long until you can challenge them? And how much of a threat do they see you as?)

Speaking for myself, I'm extremely jealous of my attention when running a game. There is never enough of it to go around. Anything I can do to reduce the cognitive load leads to a better game. With enough structure the game almost runs itself – which gives me more time to think of story beats and novel events. For my purposes, a naked resolution mechanic, even with a big list of special abilities, isn't really a game.

Which is precisely the opposite conclusion to the 90s conclusion that structure means rules and therefore work and complication and is best minimized. Badly designed structure can be all of those things, of course, but the fact remains that if something needs doing, and needs doing frequently, and the structure of the game doesn't do it for you, then you're going to have to do it – and that most certainly is work.